Anne-Laure Le Cunff
Founder of Ness Labs

How this founder ditched the Silicon Valley formula to start a newsletter

Anne-Laure Le Cunff started a newsletter to help her study neuroscience. She had no idea it would turn into 40K subscribers and her own business.

I meet Anne-Laure across a Zoom screen. I’m in Florida while she walks me (via her phone) around her apartment in Brick Lane, London. She shows me her workspace, a small desk against an exposed red brick wall. Nearby there’s a solar-powered 1972 camera. She’s been trying to do more “analog” activities, as she calls them, and has been enjoying taking photos lately, especially of the sky. 

Next to her laptop is a coffee mug, and when I ask her what it says, she laughs and tells me not to put that in the story because it says “Mrs. Always Right.” She hadn’t actually noticed what it said before this moment: it was a mug left in the apartment by the previous tenant. We both laugh, especially because the saying couldn’t be further from Anne-Laure’s philosophy.

To be Always Right would be to never ask questions. For Anne-Laure, asking questions is a way of life, a kind of love language.

I was a kid who was always asking lots of questions and I demanded answers. When I couldn't get them, I was frustrated.

The very first question that baffled Anne-Laure came to her while growing up in France, anytime she looked up. As a kid, she didn’t feel compelled to ask why the sky was blue, no, she wanted to know if the blue she saw was the same blue you saw. She was frustrated there was no way to get inside the head of another, see what they see. There was no way to know if we all saw the same blue. 

I've always been fascinated with the interface between and our perception of reality; is what’s going on in our brains a true reflection of the world? 

She didn’t know about neuroscience then, that there was a kind of way to look at brain scans and decipher perceptions. All she knew then was there were so many questions no one seemed to have the answers to.

She also didn’t know then that one day those questions would lead to a business she never saw coming. 

“I think I'm someone who needs to experience a little bit of chaos.”

Anne-Laure’s mom would always say, “My goal is to make sure you have a roof over your head for the rest of your life.”  

Anne-Laure's grandma (left).

She worked hard her whole life: cleaning houses and working in a factory making Q-tips, even going back to school later in life to become a secretary. 

Anne-Laure admired her mom’s work ethic and courage, and wanted to make her proud. So she went to business school in Rouen, Normandy and then got a job at Google. 

This would be where she first saw what it looked like to be a creator

Anne-Laure worked for Google in their London office and had a role where she was one of the event managers for the conference for YouTube creators, VidCon. 

It was 2012, and she was blown away by how these creators were making a living with their creative work and teaching others through a camera lens. 

At the time, lots of people didn't even know you could actually make a living building an audience, connecting with people, teaching something, or creating online.


Something sparked in her, but she dimmed it quickly. It was too late for her to do something like that.

She laughs now at the thought, but it was real and strong then. She was 21 at the time, and most of the attendees at VidCon seemed to be years younger. She felt she was already behind. So she let it go, and kept climbing the ladder at Google, moving to San Francisco in 2015.

Since Google was a large company, the pathways for progress were laid out clearly and were very achievable. Anne-Laure loved her time at Google, but everytime she looked ahead, she felt deflated.

I could see every single next step I had to take. I could basically see my career path in front of me.

And I think I'm someone who needs to experience a little bit of chaos, a little bit of messiness, a little bit of unknown to feel motivated.

If I had joined Google maybe 10 years before that, I could have stayed there for a very long time, but I joined at a point where Google was quite big and there were a lot of processes in place.

You could generally tell, “If I do A, B, C, in five years, this is exactly where I'm going to be.”

It's almost like reading spoilers before watching a movie, and then you don't really want to watch the movie anymore.

Anne-Laure left Google in 2017.

“In order to be successful…”

After living in Silicon Valley for two years, the next step that made the most sense to Anne-Laure was following the popular startup formula of that time and starting her own business.

Leaving Google to do a startup was considered the natural next step, it was not even considered something completely crazy.

According to the Silicon Valley model then: 

In order to be successful, you absolutely need to raise money, find a co-founder and you need to change the world. Anything less than this, you're not having any kind of meaningful impact. 

She found a cofounder, raised money, and developed a chatbot (something still relatively new then) to help people like her mom and grandma with type two diabetes.

They got users, but the startup ended when Anne-Laure and her cofounder “broke up.” 

We had completely different values. We were not in it for the same reasons.

She doesn’t blame her cofounder, but says it just wasn’t a good fit. Going into it, she was simply trying to check a box in the formula she was taught – “Find cofounder” – and didn’t stop to consider if they were a good fit, or if even having a cofounder was the best model for her.

After that, she was accepted to the Entrepreneur First accelerator where she developed a similar idea with another cofounder.

They didn’t pursue the idea in the end, but he is now one of her closest friends. (They jokingly call that phase in their life the “Friendship Accelerator.”)

But after that accelerator ended, Anne-Laure was completely lost. For the first time in her life, she had no idea what to do next. But as she predicted, the unknown motivated her – and this time, it motivated her to make the change that would change her life. 

“What do I love?”

As Anne-Laure considered other paths she could take, she asked herself something she hadn’t asked before: 

What do I love?

The answer was surprisingly easy. It was still the same thing she loved as a kid: asking questions about the brain. 

She still didn’t know exactly what she wanted to do next, but for the first time she decided maybe she didn’t need to know. Maybe she could just move toward the direction of something she loved, sit in the questions instead of demanding the answers. 

She decided to go to graduate school and study neuroscience. 

People were a bit confused by this pivot, and even she felt a little strange going back to school at 28 years old when it seemed all her friends were getting married, buying houses, and starting families.

But after a few months into her studies that all faded away. She was in love; with neuroscience. 

For the first time in her life she was given free rein to delve into the questions she’d been asking all her life. 

It was magical. 

It was also hard. Really hard. 

So when she learned in her studies about “The Generation Effect” – the idea that by creating your own version of whatever you’re studying you’ll understand and retain it better – she decided to start a newsletter to teach what she was learning. 

She’d always loved writing, and thought it would be a great challenge to turn all the complex scientific concepts she was learning into practical information anyone could understand and apply.   

I feel like using jargon is a way to hide your lack of understanding of a topic.

So for me, writing in terms that anyone could understand about what I was studying at school was a way to check that I was not fooling myself and that I actually understood what I was studying.

She liked the idea of creating a weekly newsletter because starting a newsletter was easier than starting a website, and the weekly cadence would keep her accountable, and keep her searching her notes each week to find something worthwhile she could explain. 

And because of what she’d learned at Google, she liked the idea of building an audience who was truly interested in what she was writing: 

Working in digital, I was very aware that if you build your audience on social media, you're not even sure who and when you're reaching.

I wanted to have a very simple relationship with people where it was like, “Look, give me your email address and every week you'll get this.

And if at any point you don't want what I write or you're not interested anymore, you can unsubscribe, no harsh feelings.”

I love this clear, transparent relationship that is value-based where, as long as I keep on delivering value, you stick around. Whenever I stop delivering value, you leave and that's it. I really like that. 

And at the beginning, when you're still experimenting, there's something comforting about the fact that only people who want to hear from you are going to read what you're sending.

Anne-Laure launched the newsletter in summer 2019, a year after she’d started graduate school. She created a landing page for the newsletter and sent it to all her friends and former colleagues: “It was just a tiny, tiny group of people, but I was like, ‘At least, even if the content isn't that great, you love me, right?’”

She sent a newsletter every Thursday. She doesn’t think they were all good – but she never missed a week.

Within two months, she had 3,000 subscribers.

“I felt like there was nothing for people like me.”

How did she get 3,000 so fast?

She was intentional. Once her friends and family started replying and telling her how great the content was, she decided to start sharing the content on a blog as well. 

Then, she’d share each blog article on Twitter and Hacker News, always with a form at the bottom to subscribe to the newsletter. 

She’d learned from her past startup experiences that it was important to dedicate time to promotion because it doesn’t happen on its own. 

I'm spending all of this time writing it already, so if 80% of the work is actually creating the product, why not spend 20% of my time promoting it? 

The content also resonated, and people shared it.

A couple of articles even went viral.

It turns out people were hungry for scientific-based knowledge on emotionally taxing things they were dealing with, like time anxiety.

And unlike much of the productivity advice that was all about working harder, Anne-Laure was exploring productivity that improved mental health instead of demolished or ignored it.

Her newsletter signup form says: “Join a community of curious humans who want to achieve more without sacrificing their mental health.”

The newsletter began as a way for Anne-Laure to be better at graduate school, but its mission evolved into something even more personal: 

I experienced burnout several times in my work life. I am type A, very ambitious. When I joined Google, I definitely had imposter syndrome. I was like, someone's going to notice, I'm not supposed to be here. I'm going to get fired. Someone's going to find out. 

So I would say yes to every single project. People would come to me and be like, “Can you help with this or that?”

“Yes, absolutely,” I would always answer.

I was the Yes Woman and I was saying yes to more work than I could actually get done. But time is not stretchable, right? We only have 24 hours.

I got very little sleep. I was stressed. I was trying to do a thousand things at the same time, while hiding from my colleagues that I was struggling, which also adds to the mental workload of dealing with the whole situation.

You smile and you’re like, “Yes, everything is good,” when you're dying inside.

But at the time when I was trying to find help and support, if you looked up burnout online there was a lot for people who didn't care about their jobs. There was nothing for people who actually loved their jobs, who wanted to really contribute something meaningful, and who also loved their colleagues.

I loved my job, I loved my colleagues, and I loved the company I was working for.

On paper, I had nothing to complain about and I felt like there was nothing for people like me. And I knew I was not the only person who was like this, and that maybe a lot of other ambitious people were suffering in silence because it's just not something you talk about. That’s  what inspired me. 

I think creating something you wish existed when you needed help is probably a good way to start in terms of defining your mission.

“You really shouldn't be ashamed of promoting it.”

That mission resonated with other people. And Anne-Laure wasn’t afraid of sharing it. Her longtime relationship with the internet (she started an online community for young writers in France when she was 14), along with her Google and startup days, made her more comfortable about sharing her work.

She laughs as she tells me she had the audacity to “launch” her newsletter on Product Hunt. It was just the normal culture to launch things in Silicon Valley, so she didn’t think twice. It’s a good thing, too, because that got her newsletter 2,000 new subscribers.

She credits a lot of her subscriber growth to her mindset: 

Once I decided I'm going to promote this thing, once I flicked that switch, I actually did promote it. 

For me, it's spam if what you're creating is not bringing any value. But if you truly believe in the quality of your content, then you really shouldn't be ashamed of promoting it. You really should put yourself out there. 

I struggle with many, many things, but I've always been fine posting online. You like it, you click, and you read it. If you don't like it, honestly, there's so much BS in your timeline in any case, it's like, at least this isn’t BS. It's just something you don't care about. And that’s fine; I won't feel guilty about that.

As long as Anne-Laure believed in what she was promoting, she had no issues doing so. However, she wasn’t promoting with the intention of creating a business – she simply wanted to share the information because so many people were finding it helpful.

So she was surprised when someone asked her if they could pay her to put a sponsored link in her newsletter for one hundred dollars. 

At the end of that year, just like every year, Anne-Laure did her own annual review, and at the end of 2019, even though her newsletter had only made a total of $300, she couldn’t help but think: “Maybe this could be a business?” 

And it wasn’t just the $300. It was the questions. People were asking for more, like:

“Are you going to do an online course?” “Can you please create a community?” “Can we have other ways to interact?”

And some people were like, “I want to pay for this newsletter.”

It was an amazing experience for Anne-Laure, especially after those demoralizing startup days when she felt at times that she was “pushing something onto people that they may not even need.”

Her first startup addressed a real problem, but she wasn’t sure if she had the right solution.

But this time, she didn’t even realize she was offering a solution to a problem. It was her audience who showed her that:

I had people telling me, “This is so helpful, this has helped me. I feel more calm now. I feel more productive. I feel like I can take better care of my mental health now, thanks to what you wrote.”

That was the realization for me that maybe there was something here.

She still didn’t have a plan, but a seed was planted. 

Then March 2020 happened. 

“I didn't have a plan.”

By 2020, Anne-Laure had about 8,000 subscribers, and at the end of every email at that time she always included a PS that said “Please reply, tell me how you’re feeling.”

In March 2020, she got a lot of replies.

And they all centered around the same theme: people were lonely.

They were isolated, depressed, and deeply bereft in a way none of us had quite experienced before. 

This time, Anne-Laure didn’t stop to find a co-founder or raise funding.

She just jumped in to fill a need and started a paid community. People joined immediately and she was floored, especially because she hadn’t followed the startup formula she was used to.

It was really the opposite. I didn't have a plan. I didn't have a co-founder. Didn't have funding; it was all bootstrapped, like the complete opposite of what happened before.

She’d done community management in the past as part of her job, so she thought:

Maybe I can create that space where people can connect together and support each other, feel less lonely and hopefully take care of their mental health.

By October 2020, she was making over $10,000 a month.

Her community includes courses, virtual meetups, coaching, group challenges, one-on-one matching with fellow members, a private forum, and even an end-of-year workshop where she takes people through the annual review that led her here.

She finished her graduate program in December 2020 and started working on her business full-time.

I ask her how it felt to see a business work out, especially after dealing with the pain of a failed one: 

I felt so happy. But I think there was probably a little bit of a lag between the time I was making a full-time living and when I actually realized that was happening. I couldn't really believe it at the beginning. 

At first I was barely touching the money that was there. It took me a few months to get used to the fact that, oh, it's like a salary, actually, so that's my money. I'm making this money. I can spend it.

“I didn't need to follow the Silicon Valley startup model.”

But what she loved most was engaging with the people in her community. 

Just  before our interview, she showed me three orchids on her coffee table, all given to her by friends on her recent birthday. She isn’t necessarily an orchid person but for some reason they all got her orchids so she has a little “orchid family” now as she calls it.

She also showed me the Starry Night painting a friend made for her. She’d recently had a few friends over for her birthday but explained that she doesn't really care about her birthday – she just loves any excuse to bring people together. She’s happiest sitting in the background, watching other people connect. 

One of the best feelings is when I introduce two friends and they hang out together and I'm not there. For me, that’s like the biggest success. 

Her community is like that, and she’s especially grateful for the email replies she’s received, like one mom who explained her daughter is very anxious and every Sunday they read Anne-Laure’s newsletter together over breakfast and talk about it and choose what to apply that week. 

I feel very privileged because this is a very intimate space to be in, when you start talking about mental health, and even about work in general, because that's where we spend the vast majority of our time. 

I'm just grateful that I can actually help a little bit in my tiny, tiny way. Getting those emails confirms to me that I didn't need to raise millions, I didn't need to follow the Silicon Valley startup model. I didn't need to do all of that stuff to actually have a meaningful impact.

Ph credit: Sören Funk

Her biggest dream come true was recently giving a TEDx Talk about brain myths and how they impact education.

And in March 2021, she made her first hires; to date she has a team of three people helping her run Ness Labs.

When she isn’t working with her team, she’s busy working on her PhD in neuroscience.

But the biggest transformation Anne-Laure cites has been the sense of autonomy she feels over her path now:

Now I have this deep belief that I have the agency to decide wherever I take my life and wherever I go next. There's no prerecorded track or journey that I need to follow. I get to choose, basically, what's next.


You can connect with Anne-Laure on Twitter, subscribe to her newsletter, or learn more at nesslabs.com

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