A year is a long time in any industry, but in startup land a year can feel like a decade – just ask Andrew Montesi of TalkLife, who feels like he’s done several business degrees in the few years since the app was founded.
TalkLife, a peer support network for youth mental health, certainly had an interesting year in 2014. With founder Jamie Druitt based in London and co-founders Montesi and Jacob White in Adelaide, TalkLife could make for an interesting case study on how to run a startup across several continents and make the most of each location.
“It’s challenging, but because of the time difference, we’re working on TalkLife almost 24 hours a day. It has its benefits, but we’ve got to be really clear on detail,” Montesi says.
“There’s a couple of the evenings Australian time where we have a bit of back and forth with Jamie in London, then we go to bed and that sets him up to do things for the day. Obviously, in a perfect world you’re living in the same space, but you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.”
Montesi believes London has given TalkLife access to the kind of teaching and networks that can be difficult to find in Australia.
The startup was accepted into the Bethnal Green Ventures accelerator program in London in mid-2014. Up til then, TalkLife had been a before-or-after work project for all involved, with the team investing their own savings into the app. The move into the accelerator program allowed Druitt to both leave his job to work on TalkLife full time, and helped the startup get funding.
In October, TalkLife received funding from English organisations including Nesta, a charity funding innovative social startups, which awarded the app almost £100,000 to help it grow its user base to 350,000 by the end of 2015.
Montesi believes the London base is crucial: having already grown a significant user base in the UK organically, the team will be focusing on the UK market for future growth, while the UK’s acceptance of social enterprise allows for more funding opportunities.
“I think England is much further advanced in the social enterprise space…I think the government has a different approach; rather than having an enormous public service, they have sort of outsourced to these charities to fund startups to do the work of government in terms of solving social problems. It’s an innovative way of addressing social issues. They see startups as the answer to a lot of these problems, and there’s a lot support in that area,” Montesi says.
Through the Bethnal Green program, the team learned about impact investment, which aims to generate social impact along with a financial return, and how to pitch the company to potential investors.
“We didn’t realise that there’s a proven way to pitch the company and develop it so that we can be open to impact investment. We worked really hard on things like our theory of change, evidence of our social success and how we measure that, and how to measure how we’re helping people. So we’ve been working on our social model and business model which, in many ways, is impact investment, which is what Bethnal Green Ventures specialises in,” Montesi explains.
Funding is important for TalkLife, since monetising the app is a delicate proposition. The founders had launched a Pozible campaign for the app in late 2013, which only raised a few hundred dollars of a $7000 goal – given the stigma that surrounds mental illness, people aren’t always keen to publicise their use or endorsement of a service addressing it.
Subscriptions or memberships to unlock extra features on the app could also be problematic. Many of TalkLife’s users are teens who may rely on their parents for money, and some may be using TalkLife to address issues caused by their parents, or issues that they can’t talk to their parents about in the first place.
It’s hard to imagine that more funding won’t be coming TalkLife’s way, given the crucial service it’s providing and the partnerships it has made. In the last year, TalkLife has been working with Microsoft Research and several US universities including Harvard and MIT – who has a designated scientist working on the app – to process and analyse data in the hopes of understanding the triggers leading to self harm.
Montesi says that the ultimate goal for TalkLife, through the work being done with Microsoft and the universities, is to be able to intercept users who are going through a mental health crisis before they reach a self harm point.
When it comes to shorter term goals, the team aims to grow TalkLife’s userbase across Europe and the US, and Australia, where it has so far flown under the radar compared to the US and England.
Montesi says, “There are so many ideas and things we’re stewing on, it’s all a matter of time and funding.”