Spill: The story so far…

The beginning

Gavin and I met at school. He was the kid that sold sweets from his backpack during lunch break and I spent most of my time playing the guitar and recording songs in the music department. We only really started talking when we shared some of the same classes. A few years later and all of our A-Level economics revision was done in York Library together. We’d talk about what we wanted to do in the future. Sixteen-year-old me wanted to open a bakery and bake bread every day; Sixteen-year-old Gavin wanted to open a restaurant.

Cut forward ten years and we were still working together — but this time from the Barbican in London. We were at a bit of a loose end, though. We had both moved to London to work on something awesome, but something awesome wasn’t quite working.

Out of the blue, Gavin asks: “What about mental health?”. We’d both had friends suffer from mental health issues and knew that the kind of available support wasn’t working for how people lived today. We quickly started trying to think of ways to make support more accessible. We came up with the idea of matching together two people who are going through a tough time. The idea was that they would be able to support each other over message chat every single day. The only flaw that we could see was that when people went on holiday they wouldn’t be able to support their partner. Aside from that, we thought that our idea was a winner!

However, things didn’t go quite as smoothly… My dad is a clinical psychologist and told us about how the Big White Wall had already been running a similar service with the NHS for years. We also tried out some peer-to-peer support services such as 7cups and found that the anonymouspeer-to-peer side of things really made it difficult to trust the person on the other side. As with anonymous commenting on forums, the temptation to troll often proves too great.

(Looking back now, we did make the right decision not to pursue this as our main business idea. But the more I speak to friends about mental health, the more I realise some kind of way to create and help better friendship group support would come in really useful.)

We believed the problem of mental health services not keeping up with the way people live today was still the right one to try and solve. But we decided to turn our attention to making counselling easier to access as a potential solution, and this inevitably meant one thing: an app.

Example conversation:

First mindfulness exercise:

We started talking to businesses about the idea of letting their employees come onto our app to talk about anything that was on their mind. We would then match them with counsellors who worked across the UK. The response was incredible from the companies that we spoke to. Everyone was starting to take mental health more seriously. After a few meetings, a handful of businesses were ready to give us a shot.

Just one thing stood in our way. We also needed counsellors to message back! Fortunately, my mum is a counsellor and gave us some tips on where to find them and offered to help where she could. Our first ever counsellor was called Jenny. We reached out after we saw her profile online. She was young and had done some online counselling before. She took a little convincing as we were two people that she’d never met trying to convince her that daily message based counselling could be a thing. In the end, she bought in. She knew that people weren’t coming to see counsellors because of how big of a step it is to book onto a session. She was really excited about how we were trying to bring counselling into the 21st century and hopefully open it up to more people. Jenny was in!

The time came to launch with our first company. We went in and did a talk about who we were and how you could access support through your phone. We thought that most employees would come on to talk about depression, anxiety and other serious mental health issues. From speaking with my mum about her experience as a counsellor we’d learnt that that’s what most people came to see her about. Quickly, and surprisingly however, we heard from Jenny that people were actually coming on to talk about life’s stresses: underappreciation at work, family illnesses, relationship niggles. We were all shocked. We realised then that we had happened upon a real need, one that not only wasn’t being addressed but wasn’t even being voiced in the first place. Our mission became to make support available to everyone, not just those with a clinical diagnosis.

Building the team

We’d hit upon this idea of people talking about life’s stresses over message chat with a counsellor. I was able to build the technology and Gavin spent most of his time speaking with businesses who thought that they could benefit from what we were making, as well as talking to counsellors. We were lucky and managed to get some investment from people who believed in what we were making early on. We then set out to build a team of people who were super passionate about what we were doing.

The first point on the agenda was the sheer mass of stuff Gavin had to do every day. I had a really good friend who was travelling around New Zealand. I called them on Friday morning and on Saturday they had changed their return flight date and were on the plane back to the UK to start on Monday morning. It was crazy. In just a few months they have come in and taken over a lot of admin and essential stuff that just had to be done.

We also needed some skills that Gavin and I just didn’t have.

Enter, Will.

I haven’t got enough words to describe how fab Will is. All I will say is that on his first week he transformed our brand from this:

To this:

So it was no longer just Gavin and me and we wanted to make things a bit more formal. Will knew someone who took pictures for a living and convinced him to take a team photo of us for free. The only problem was that our office looked a bit naff:

Fortunately, from my old job, I still had a set of keys to a fancy London office. The only problem was getting our team of eight into the office without getting thrown out. We had organised to meet at 8 pm, thinking that everyone should have left work by then. However, apparently that evening they were holding a drawing class in the other room. We had no option other than to act like we belonged.

Everyone arrived and started to get ready for the picture. Matt, our lead developer, who arrived for his first ever interview with us covered in blood having just fallen off his bike, proceeded to walk into the room and knock over a glass table, just as the CEO of the company whose office we were using was making a cup of tea a few metres away.


Some funny looks later and the table was put back together and we were ready to start looking like an actual company!

Where we are now

We’ve been incredibly fortunate to find some brilliant companies who believe in our mission and want to support their employees with on-demand counselling. Our app is in the hands of companies ranging from small tech startups to old financial institutions to disaster-relief NGOs.

We have also just opened Spill up to members of the public, bringing on signed-up users slowly to ensure that everyone has the best experience we can give them. The most exciting part of this, for me, has been how many people genuinely want to help.

During calls to onboard new users to the public app, everyone is so generous with their time for feedback and putting up with any of our growing pains. It’s fascinating to hear everyone’s story and what they hope to get from daily counselling.

I hope this catches you up! If you want to get in touch you can email me on calvin@spill.chat or sign up for Spill at https://www.spill.chat/

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