I Dived into Mental Health Entrepreneurship and This is What I Learned

by | Nov 18, 2016 | Mental Health

I Dived into Mental Health Entrepreneurship and This is What I Learned

by | Nov 18, 2016 | Mental Health

Earlier this year I took my first dip into the mental health social entrepreneurship space. Out of 340 applications, I was accepted alongside 59 others in the Young Social Pioneers incubator program, delivered by the Foundation for Young Australians. Over six months, I participated in intensive workshops on business, social impact measurement, branding, and finance. With no prior business knowledge I had to quickly adapt to have the best chance of successfully pitching my idea to the biggest investors of mental health in Australia.

I learned so much as I went from ‘idea’ to ‘initiative that could really change lives’. I’d like to share with you the biggest lessons I learned from the experience, which I hope helps you on your social entrepreneurship journey.

1. Know your problem.

This should be a top priority when starting out. My mental health social entrepreneurship idea began with a list of all the problems I experienced while experiencing mental illness. I wrote out about 30 things and then ordered them from what I thought was also the biggest problem for other people. I settled on seeking to address the problem of a lack of ongoing care for a mental illness. Around 2 million Australians seek help for a mental health problem each year but only a quarter will receive the support they need to be happy and well. This is a huge problem and one that I personally experienced many times over. Even though this idea looks simple, conceptualising the problem like this took about two months to achieve.

I did it through two things: conversations and lots of research. I had conversations with people who were involved in the mental health space as consumers, volunteers, workers and people who knew nothing about mental health at all. They all helped by questioning whether my idea was really needed, and helping me zone-in on the gap I was trying to address. Together, we worked out that trying to solve All of The Problems in the mental health space would lead to to a messy product, and that it would be far better to address one problem and do it well rather than do lots of things not so well. Once I knew what my problem was, coming up with the solution was a piece of cake. We settled on developing a telephone service that calls young people at-risk of dropping out of mental health services and connects them to appropriate support.

2. Collaborate.

There is someone else out there equally as passionate as you working on a very similar project to you (if not exactly the same). Don’t feel bad, this is AWESOME.

Mental illness is an incredibly complex, global issue. There’s more than enough work in the mental health space that needs to be done and enough opportunities for all of us to make a difference. As Tom Insel, former director of the National Institute of Mental Health says, ‘we need to be mature enough to acknowledge that there is no magic bullet to fixing mental illness’. With this in mind, we desperately need to work together to find solutions. Collaboration and connections are a must, not an option. For this to happen, I believe we need to say to ourselves, ‘this isn’t about me, this is about being part of something bigger, and that ‘something’ is changing lives’.

So, if the problem you want to address is already being well-addressed by someone else, offer your skills and knowledge to make the initiative better. Get in contact via e-mail or pick up the phone. Not only will you be able to have a greater impact but you will be able to attract higher quality funding if you can demonstrate that you have the capacity to build a team rather than be a lone-wolf. Alternatively, if the solution you are offering fills the gap better than someone else, getting other people on board will be key to acquiring grants, seed funding, or scholarships.

3. Challenge your assumptions.

During the program, myself and the other participants were fortunate enough to have a session with two CEO’s of major mental health organisations. They asked us what we would like to know. I jumped in and said, “I want to know how to make a real, positive change in the mental health space.” Report after report tells us that people are not getting access to timely, effective, and ongoing care for mental illness. So, when I said I wanted to know how to make real change in mental health, I thought this was a good thing to ask.

That was until a CEO pointed-out the error in my thinking. I’d been approaching reform in mental health from a deficit mindset. That is, I was looking at it like every action taken in the past to reduce mental illness had been rubbish. Instead, I needed to flip my thinking and be looking at the positive steps that have already been taken to improve mental health. And it’s true — we’ve made huge strides to prevent mental illness in Australia. We need to learn from what has already been achieved, add to it and innovate from it to make real change in mental health. This mindset makes it much easier when conceptualising a new mental health start-up because you find a gap, look to what has been done, learn from that, and then take a step forward. Every step forward counts.

4. Know your stuff.

Read everything that you can about your space, refine your initiative, then read more. There will be many times that you think you know everything in your space, only to have some piece of information come by that changes everything. This happened to me: a week before I was to pitch my idea, I discovered that a similar project had already been undertaken 5 years ago and stopped due to running out of funding. This was a game-changer for me. I thought, ‘if that project was de-funded, what does it mean for my own project?’ I had to pick up the phone again to experts to sort through it all. This goes to show that you need to talk widely, read widely, and learn constantly! How to find good information? I recommend reading reports (Google search these, especially using Google Scholar), journal articles, and articles from reputable news websites.

Annual reports are a great way to learn about different funding streams available to mental health initiatives, projects being undertaken, key people to contact, and seeing how projects have grown over time. I can’t emphasise enough how important it is to read the annual report before contacting a mental health organisation. It will help you come across as someone who has done their research and is calling with the specific purpose of finding out more that is not already available in the report. This leads to my next lesson…

5. Reach out for help.

As you get to know the problem you are trying to address and conduct more research, you will need to start contacting people with more expertise than you. I recommend you take it straight to the top person in the organisation (CEO, executive, head of research, head of engagement, etc). A good relationship with someone else in the know can help take your initiative to the next step. These people are short on time – they are kind and generous but you need to let them know exactly how they can help you. Do you need help with identifying a sustainable business model, a grant you could apply for, or opinion on whether your initiative is a viable product? The more specific you are the higher quality help you will receive, and you will be more likely to have responses from people who are in high-up positions. You will also be more likely to receive a response if you let them know how you can help them (be generous!) – is there a grant you could jointly apply for? Could you offer your skills or connections in the future? Let them know.

Try starting off with a short e-mail of no more than 150 words introducing yourself, your initiative, what you need help with, what you could potentially offer them (grant, skills, connections) and the possibility of a phone call at a time of their convenience. Follow-up in a week if you haven’t heard back, and then consider contacting other people or seeing if you can get an introduction.

These are just the basic lessons I learned by participating in a social entrepreneurship incubator program. This post really boils down to the importance of connections, collaborations, and knowing the problem you want to solve. If you have any further questions or comments I would love to chat with you! Say ‘hi’ on my contact page or follow on Twitter or Facebook.