Lessons from building a venture capital backed business in 12 weeks
I met my co-founders, thought up a business idea, and gained pre-seed investment in 12 weeks. I learned a lot.
In September 2020 I waved goodbye to my job as a UX Designer at Sainsbury’s. It felt like a wild move in the midst of a global pandemic. Online shopping sales were booming, it felt like the safest industry to be in. My colleagues were awesome, and I felt my design-work improved as I got feedback from software engineers and more seasoned UX/UI designers.
On the side of my Sainsbury’s day-job I’d been working on an idea for a new mental health business, I wanted to provide group therapy cheaply at scale. I’d started to create an online presence for this idea, and I’d run ticketed sessions with my first customers to start to gain some feedback. I applied for a programme called Antler. Antler gets entrepreneurial people together to build new businesses. As well as giving people an opportunity to meet potential co-founders and investors, they offer a stipend for the time you’re on the programme. This de-risked me leaving my salaried job.
The first few weeks of Antler was about doing design challenges, meeting the other 80 Antlers. I teamed up with Al Dee and Daniel Botcherby. Al Dee is a software developer and a guided meditation coach. Daniel has run his own start ups, as well as worked as the Head of Product at MyCognition.
Together we developed Kalda: the world’s first LGBTQIA+ community mental wellbeing app. Kalda provides weekly group therapy, daily reflections and peer support. We’ve been running a no-code pilot on Facebook and Zoom. Right now we’re building our beta version.
I learned a huge amount about startups and entrepreneurship on the Antler programme, and I met driven, talented and ambitious people.
Whichever industry you’re entering, you need to have founder-market fit. Al, Daniel and I came together because we all wanted to continue working in mental health, and we have complimentary skills in that area. Al has been organising festivals and safe spaces for and with the LGBTQIA+ community for years. Daniel had spent time developing products that supported people with depression. I had worked with an amazing team at Public Health England developing their evaluating digital health products service. Being connected to the digital health industry allowed us to spot opportunities. The work we’d done before the Antler programme gave us the foundation and understanding we needed. It was like we’d already started working on the business before we’d met.
At the very start we made a week-by-week plan, which included the key milestones we needed to hit. At the very start of the process we didn’t even have a business idea, so we dedicated about 3 weeks just to carrying out research and understanding people’s problems in accessing the right mental health support. We mapped out when we needed sign ups from customers for our business. Another big milestone was getting paying customers, which we wanted to do to understand if we were creating a sustainable business. Having our own milestones in place helped when there was a lot of external pressure from Antler to make fast progress. For me, this plan was a north star.
One of the most important parts of the plan was finding a real problem that affects people, that we were well placed to solve. Through the research we carried out we learned that people in the LGBTQIA+ community find it hard to find therapists who understand their lived experience. We believe that everyone deserves affordable mental health support, so we focused on that. Finding this problem and honing in on it took a long time.
Gaining traction was about getting everyone on board. We needed to understand whether customers were interested in paying for the service. By the time we were pitching to investors we’d run Facebook ads and got the word out about Kalda, and had 600+ people on our wait list. We had 70–80 people using our no-code pilot, where they received weekly group therapy and daily reflection and peer support. We had 20 paying customers who’d paid for weekly group therapy sessions. This gave us confidence that Kalda was something people wanted, and were willing to pay for.
We also wanted advice from people within the academic community, we connected with leaders in LGBTQIA+ mental health research, and evaluation experts. Having this traction from the industry as well as customers gave investors the confidence to invest in a brand new team.
We did a lot of research to understand how many people who identify as LGBTQIA+ there are in the UK and beyond. This was a big question from potential investors: they understand that people in the LGBTQIA+ community weren’t receiving the mental health support they needed, but was the market big enough? We learned that one in three millennials identify as not completely hetrosexual. Grindr recently sold for $608 million dollars. Those things demonstrated the huge market potential. As a marginalised group LGBTQIA+ people’s spending power and need for mental health support couldn’t be overlooked.
Getting from idea generation to full on investor pitch in a few months was stressful. Start up culture encourages working around the clock. Start up culture optimises for the sprint, rather than the marathon. But starting a business is a long-term commitment, so looking after our mental health was important.
We worked on establishing our ways of working as a team. Finding a therapist to have a sharing session with us as a team helped us when we had trouble communicating. Team trust and communication is something we continually work on through retrospectives and feeling check ins.
I tried to set up a boundary around trying not to work at the weekend and into the evenings too much, which helped. Exercise seemed to completely go out of the window. We set up a daily wellbeing questionnaire that encourages us to check in on how well we’re looking after ourselves. Looking after our own mental health, while building a business to support other people’s mental health is a work in progress.
We got lucky and the investors liked our pitch. The Antler programme gave us a dedicated coach and worked with us on our business and pitch every step of the way. There are issues with diversity in the venture capital (VC) industry and programmes like Antler can break down some of the barriers and open up the talent pool. Everyone in the VC industry has a responsibility to improve the diversity of the teams that are being invested in. Because this is where the products of tomorrow are created.
Some of the reasons that the VC industry isn’t diverse is because people like to invest in people like them, getting in contact with the right people is difficult. Having time and money to spend on an idea is a privilege. Antler started chip away at some of those barriers. Giving co-founders the time and space to connect. Providing teams with influential contacts and providing a stipend to work on an idea.
We are a small diverse team: Daniel is mixed-race, Al is trans and identifies as non-binary and I am a woman. Each of us is under-represented in the VC world. We intend to put diversity first in our hiring processes, hiring people from the community we serve is at the heart of our business.