We Turn Two...Several Rebirths After
This is going to be a long one. Also my first.
I had heard good things take time. Didn't know that it would feel like a lifetime.
A last minute trip to drop my wife off at her internship in Oct of 2013 in a shady neighborhood led to the brightest idea i've had so far. Here's how that went,
Me: Why on earth would a psychologist practice in this area? Its such a pain to get here!
Her: Exactly why. "People" don't want "people" to know that they are seeing a psychologist. They feel safer coming here over a nice, popular location.
Me: But what if they meet someone inside the clinic?
Her: They may but then they are both there for the same thing. So i guess it evens out.
Me: That sucks, why are you doing this?
Her: Its great, I'm learning a lot.
Me: No, I mean, why are you doing this when it’s discomforting and inconvenient for the people you guys are helping? Why not create an online platform that's anonymous and easy? Where Nobody sees nobody
Her: That would be great. But I don't want to do business.
Me: I do. Actually, maybe I will.
And that stayed with me for a year. Thought about it so many times. We discussed it so many times but guess what? I did nothing about it. I just let it sit out there in some hidden corner of my mind. After all, when did I have dearth of ideas?
But this one was different. It didn't leave. It kept coming back, stronger. Sometimes taking me back to my childhood and wondering would I have turned out any different if I had help through the not so great memories? Would it have eased peer pressure or the pain of not making it to IIT? Could it have helped save the first relationship away from home? Or the struggle and loneliness that followed it? Perhaps helped with the grief of losing a father like figure?
I still don't know if it would have. But I felt the need to do this, for my own sake. I had started reading about counseling and I found it so fascinating that had it been a few years earlier, I would have studied psychology and not engineering. Oh well, there was still a way to do this.
I finally talked about it to two of my closest friends. One of them loved it. The other one said it wasn't bad perhaps because he had heard many ideas from me earlier. The one who loved it, said I'll help you with this. We started with meeting well known psychologists to get their thoughts on the model I was proposing, an Instant & Anonymous platform for people to connect with professional counselors over chat and call. Here's what we got:
"Good idea, but counseling needs to be face to face. Non verbal cues are important."
"You can't help people over phone and chat. You can only create awareness and motivate them to see a counselor"
"Maybe helpful for basic stuff. Not for anything significant"
"How will you handle disorders?"
It was great food for thought. Through the contours of what we couldn't do, what we could became clearer. A few RTI applications and legal framework later, Dial My Angel was incorporated.
Meetings with experienced psychologists convinced me that we had to start with people who could connect with the concept and it was certainly not those who had practiced offline and swore by it. Not then, anyway.
So we wanted to build a team of people who were new to counseling and hence not biased, institute a counseling process that would work with our model and deliver relief/happiness to those in need. Hence we landed at a campus that was open to a rookie with no experience of counseling, no background in psychology come and recruit for a venture that was yet to go live. And on an overnight notice, I put together our recruitment presentation, figured a recruitment process and set off to hire.
It was so good to be back on campus, to see ambitious young minds with dreams to make a mark and we found our first few team members Liza & Feba. They believed in me and the venture, at time when I was myself shaky. Liza is also the only therapist i've had the fortune of seeing. Soon after Sonia, Neha and Khushboo joined us.
I remain grateful to them for the leap of faith then and for many more things to come. Soon after, we had a rock of a Team Lead Anam, and a leader disguised as a counselor, Shivani join. Blessed to have each one of them. Some had to leave, most of them stayed and the beauty aside from all their strengths is, they love BetterLYF as much, if not more.
After 8 months of rigorous training under wraps and tons of mock cases, we felt ready for the real ones and went live on World Mental Health Day, Oct 10th 2016. Coincidentally, It happens to be my birthday, an unforgettable one at that.
When Reality Gazed at Naivety
Several months before launch, on a road trip with friends to Tahoe, I told a very close friend, "What I'm most worried about is, how would we handle the call volume?". He was generous enough to not ridicule me, and said, go ahead and build it, we can figure the operational challenges later.
On Day 1, we had NO calls. NO chats. NO one bothered that we had started existing.
And why would they, we never cared to tell them. We thought we just need to let a few people know, and wait for it to go viral. After all word of mouth is the easiest, cheapest and best form of marketing. We had professional counselors ready to help people with areas like Parenting, Fear, Confidence, Anxiety, Depression, Peer Pressure, Relationships, Work Stress and whatever else you can imagine for, that’s an offer no one would refuse. Instead, no one took. A drink with a Friend's father going over his entrepreneurial journey gave me the comfort and inspiration I desperately needed on our launch day.
We didn't realize that anonymity did little to address the stigma of talking about mental well being. "Get well soon", "You need to seek professional help", "I highly recommend Dr. X"...only belong to the Physical health world, not mental. Empathy for dealing with sickness that is so common, was largely missing in mental health space. No one would RECOMMEND us.
Counseling Is For Crazies?
When people think of counseling, they think crazy. So we had to dispel that. We wanted to convey that counseling is not for unfortunate few but for everyone. It wasn't just for matters beyond control, it was also for small things that bother us. For matters, that can’t always be shared with friends or family. After all, we as a culture are fairly judgemental. We wanted to normalize it. Hence we did our first Video with a Comedian. It was none other than Amit Tandon, who also happens to be family. He particularly wanted to talk about Peer Pressure and Social Media and hence we shot a video around that.
The day that video was released, was by far the best day for Dial My Angel, we had traffic from 30+ countries congratulating us on the cause and how this was very helpful. I know how each one of us was excited beyond words and took a big leap of faith. We all worked around the clock that day. I didn't sleep that night. It was surreal.
The same month, we had our first professionally shot Video on who needs counseling. Our happiest month till date. Sharp contrast from Day 1.
What's in a Name?
When you are truly madly deeply in love with something/someone, you miss out on their most obvious, visible to naked eye but not yours, imperfections. We called ourselves Dial My Angel, our first home page had a very happy, carefree (Read Distracting) image, a lot of information (Read Clutter) and multiple (Read Confusing) calls to action and we just couldn't see anything wrong with any of them.
We had a few iterations, but nothing drastic. Nothing that helped us figure what was wrong.
With such a scintillating start, what follows can only be better, and so we did get better.
I now believe that when you want something badly, you are blessed with people who will help you get there. A Mentor from Silicon Valley told me Dial My Angel was cheeky and healthcare was a serious business, change the name. He said it with such certainty, and from a wealth of experience that I finally did.
He wasn't the first one, all those spam callers who had their own ideas of "Angel" tried telling us hundreds of times. But as I said, when you are in love.
BetterLYF.com was thus born.
Another close friend from google helped clean up our home page and outcomes changed significantly. Small things, big difference.
We connected with Yourstory, Rediff, Entrepreneur and talked about what we believed in and to our surprise, they featured us.
Burning a Hole
Startups suck a lot of capital and this was no different. To add to our problems we were too shy to ask clients to pay. So while the payment gateways were still being setup, people who committed to paying through PayTM, Bank Transfers etc transferred nothing but hope. We paid our dues of ignorance to Google, PR, Facebook and Offline campaigning. Not that we don't still but along the way we have come to understand it a little better. Hiring someone to do this didn't work out too well, good talent was a tad too expensive and most times didn't want to bet on a bootstrapped start up. So I thought of reaching out to VCs of the world and I spoke to a lot of them. They were quite insightful and polite,
"We love what you're building. Please keep building and let's touch base later."
"I don't see how this would make money. We've seen a few ventures, they couldn't sustain beyond free."
"Do you see this becoming a billion dollar business?"
"Its not a scalable model."
"Once you hit X Revenue/Y Transactions a day, we can take a look"
It was discouraging at first and I would challenge their feedback in my mind but instead I tried to understand why they said what they said. I could see it make sense. Passion alone doesn't build companies, it’s a key ingredient, not everything. We all sat down to see how we could change the fate of BetterLYF and we focused on the basics.
Higher counselor utilization and client retention is what we spent all of our time on. Since word of mouth wasn't gonna help us, we felt that people may not mind sharing articles and videos they connect with, so we build 100s of them, and it really helped. We removed our mental block of “Instant”. Can you believe, for a year and a half we were stuck with it. We offered the option to schedule appointments, and it was welcomed by the clients.
Similarly we never felt that clients would pay for chat. Counter intuitively, they loved chat. It helped them open up in a safe, unknown space. Some gradually move to Call/Video, others don't. We used to anonymize counselors before, given that we had a lot of spam callers/stalkers, without realizing how will we build credibility with the real clients? So we got real.
My Mentor also advised me to NOT spend time raising money and to fix the real challenges. He wondered why the repeat usage was not high enough?
Its not that we didn't ask this question to ourselves, its just that we couldn't figure the answer. Our mentor helped us figure this, The clients wanted an immediate fix which wasn't possible. It’s like putting a band aid on a deep wound. So we changed our approach and started psycho-educating clients. Again small change, big difference.
A year later we welcomed Vrinda, Nandita, Sukriti, Ashmita, Shivanee, Aashima, Harshali, Shreya, Yukti our inhouse expert and trainer and Yuktika our best ever intern. They helped us take counseling quality, counselor availability and client experience to a new level altogether.
Too Much to Handle
BetterLYF was not the only startup we had on our plate. We had 3 more during this time. We were blessed with two sons and in our other business, we are building a start up in Farm Mechanization space that's still under the wraps.
Hence my wife took two and so did I.
And it’s been a joyful ride, bumpy and stressful at times but beautiful nonetheless. On many occasions, there was learning from parenting that helped with the startups and vice versa. Patience for one, Nurturing with persistence was another.
Me and my wife often talked about challenges, celebrate small achievements, counseling approach and what not. At times I would have a conversation with my Dad and Brother on how hard it was to get it off the ground and all these conversations would instill hope, plan and energy to pursue it. Their beliefs added wings.
As we grew our international presence, we started operating around the clock, and so did I.
There were days when I barely slept and couldn't recall if a conversation had happened or was imagined. There were better days when I couldn't tell difference between dreams and reality.
There were times I was emotionally unavailable even to those closest to me. My mom, my wife, a couple of very close friends going through a rough patch. I couldn't offer empathy, understanding or anything else to them. I had no bandwidth, enough guilt. Ironic when you are trying to deliver happiness for many you don’t know and are nothing but a silent spectator to those who mean the world to you. I did apologize to every single one of them later.
One incident that remained with me was when I came back from work and was on the phone continuously and my 2 year old son was jumping with excitement of seeing me. I could reciprocate only some of it. I got off the call and we were playing with cars. Him sitting on one end, me on the other. Cars shuttling between us. The call didn't quite resolve the issue so now I was on whatsapp. It was a disgruntled client, the kind you can't postpone.
I was still sending cars his way but he figured it was mechanical. So he got up, came to me, and said “Dad, Please talk to me”. Few words, enough said.
I made a lot more effort to not let work mingle with kids time. I succeed sometimes.
Back To The Grind
As we moved along, we realized that while counseling is for everyone, not everyone is comfortable talking It out. So we had to have an interactive, software driven solution for those in need. That's how Wellness Programs were born. Shivani & Shailendra led it.
We poured our learning from thousands of cases and made these programs across 9 most common concern areas such as Break Ups, Marriage, Confidence, Anxiety, Work Life Balance, Peer Pressure, Anxiety, Depression etc.
Lot of hard work and still undergoing iterations but we had a lot of people subscribe without any marketing. We love it, maybe soon others will too.
The beauty of our team has been, we are all so passionate about the cause that we didn't shirk from anything. We have no content writers, yet some amazing articles. No video production, editing yet the team taught itself and came up with videos that I was myself surprised with.
We discovered Poets, Writers, Actors, Video Editors in our counselors.
2 years and many rebirths later, I think we were just a bunch of rookies wanting to make a difference then as we are now. And I think we made a little difference to over a million people who reached out to BetterLYF from 195 Countries and to 2,00,000 of them who decided to have a conversation with us. We will soon be coming out with new and exciting ways of reaching and impacting many more lives.
As we celebrate our 2nd Birthday, I'm truly grateful to everyone who’s helped us get better everyday. Our team, Our supportive families, Our Friends and most importantly the ones who keep us going, Our Clients.
To a more meaningful tomorrow.