In this tête-à-tête with YourDOST founders, Richa Singh and Puneet Manuja, we find out more about how online counselling assisted by technology helps their venture reach out to thousands who need counselling for psychological problems related to depression, relationships, education, sexuality, social phobia and other common subjects.
Careerizma: You’ve mentioned in several articles about how a student suicide on the IIT campus triggered the idea. Why did the official counselling processes on campus not work?
Richa: I personally think, in colleges the problem is manifold:
1. It becomes hard for students to trust the management that the sessions are strictly confidential and will not be used against them. The fear that the relationship with faculty will suffer or the grades will go down stops them from seeking help.
2. Additionally it is a very closed environment, everyone knows where their friends are going. It is a matter of shame if anyone finds out that you are visiting to a counselor.
3. Again due to stigma, there is always a fear, ‘What if someone sees me near counselor office?’
4. Students generally tend to feel down late in the night and no help is available at those hours.
Careerizma: Share a little about life as a student at IIT.
Richa: I have always been an outgoing person but would never share anything that was bothering me with anyone. I was a lot into sports – swimming, table tennis etc
I always wanted to solve a real problem. Startups always excited me because I could see how my work was affecting the business. I always wanted to work for a startup or start my own company and take it to new heights.
The idea of YourDOST has been there since IIT days, I knew something around this is what I wanted but it took lot of iteration to understand what it was.
Careerizma: Question for Puneet. You had an unusual (and unpleasant) experience as a student that convinced you of the idea. Can you shed more light on it?
Puneet: I was a gold medalist at my campus but didn’t get placed for the first one month of my campus placement process. That dropped my confidence to a new low with every rejection.
A lot of murmurs whether I deserve to be a topper started hitting my mind (may be i was just imaging). But this also played an important role resulting in sleepless nights and falling confidence.
It took a few days for me to realise that these things are doing more bad than good to me. I had to be patient and focus on my preparation and interviews.
I took a step back and prepared from start without assuming I will get placed without much efforts since I was a bright student.
This taught me one important lesson in life:
Doesn’t matter how sharp you are, hard work can never be replaced.
Careerizma: What were the big challenges in converting the idea into something real and operational?
Richa: However ironic it may sound but the word “mental” is associated with madness and insanity. As a result, seeking mental counseling is a huge taboo in our society. Seeking support is considered a sign of weakness.
Most of the times we keep our problems to ourselves because we are not very comfortable accepting our vulnerabilities. There are issues of discovery and availability also present with searching for a relevant counselor nearby.
We believe technology is a potential contender for filling these gaps – especially anonymity and reach. This has helped us get some early acceptance of this solution from people.
Another challenge we face as a country today is the importance of Mental Healthcare. In fact Healthcare itself has been a field which is largely ignored in India. Coming out of a doctor’s clinic without a prescription or medicines means “usne loot liya” (‘The doc cheated me’).
That’s one of the challenge mental health brings with it. Counseling sessions are mostly about empowering you to take decisions which would help make things better, not about preaching or prescribing medicines. It’s a solution found by an open conversation between two individuals in a proper setting.
A lot of this is changing today. We are seeing a lot of startups coming into preventive healthcare and getting good response from people. With the attention that mental healthcare is able to grab today, from celebrities to investors, we believe we are at an inflection point of the Mental Healthcare industry.
Careerizma: What were the skills that you had, what did you lack? How did you manage to convince others to join you in the mission?
Richa: There are lot of skills I am still learning but to name a few
– I had no clue how to go about fund-raising
– Marketing was learnt on the go
– Operations was new to me again
I have a vision to work towards doing something meaningful and I kept telling people around it. I was lucky to inspire this amazing group of people to share the same vision.
Careerizma: Explain a little about how you designed the site, what features does it have, what else is planned?
Richa: We have built a user facing platform which helps people willing to seek support to engage with our experts and access self help tools. It can be accessed through our web portal YourDOST.com or through our android app.
It allows instant access to users to a team of 75+ experts and share their problems through an online interface, be it a live chat or email query or even book one on one interaction with the expert of their choice. The key aspect of this venture is that people are kept completely anonymous throughout the platform.
On the other side, the experts are provided with a system to access the platform. This side is completely different than the user facing platform and gives experts the freedom to make notes, access history, read/ reply to messages and many other features including live chat with the users on a seamless basis depending on their availability.
Careerizma: What were the key activities that provided a spike to the site and call traffic?
Richa: Media Exposure does provide spike but content helps us retain people and make them understand about mental wellness. Therefore Organic search plays an important role.
Careerizma: How is the team structured?
Richa: We have 17 full time members, 75+ experts, Content Interns and Freelancers.
We managed to attract some of the best talent in the market from premier institutes like IIT, IIM and from a few top companies like Flipkart, MuSigma, Yahoo etc.
Along with the core team, we are really fortunate to get mentors and advisors like Sanjay Anandram, Phanindra Sama who have built scalable Indian companies; Dr. Archana Tyagi (who has served as a counselor and coach at high stress border areas in countries like India, Afganistan); Dr. Mazumdhar (who has been the expert behind building Healthcaremagic) etc.
Careerizma: What’s the scale of operations right now?
Richa: Since inception in Dec 2014, the platform have received close to 70,000 users so far and has been growing at about 40% month on month.
With 10,000 registered users currently, a team of 75+ experts service around 300 one-to-one interactions on a daily basis.
Careerizma: With all the expenses that come with managing a full-time (9 member) team, how’s the initiative being funded?
Richa: When we started operations it was bootstrapped. However we recently raised about USD 400,000 (Rs. 2.5 crores) in Angel funding.
Our unique idea caught the attention of several established entrepreneurs like Phanindra Sama (Founder – Redbus), Aprameya Radhakrishna (Founder – TaxiForSure), Aneesh Reddy (Founder – Capillary).
Our portfolio now has seasoned investors like Sanjay Anandaram (Seedfund) and Venk Krishnan (NuVentures).
Careerizma: What’s the target audience for this service?
Richa: We want to become a one stop solution for people’s wellness be it personal, professional or academic.
To start with, we are focusing on college students and young professionals.
Careerizma: What are the top issues that the counsellors deal with? Which are the top 5 states where calls originate?
Richa: Here’s a breakup of the top issues.
|Others (Sexuality/ LGBT/ Addiction etc)||15%|
The top states are Karnataka, Delhi, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh / Telangana, West Bengal.
Careerizma: How do you draw the line between friendly (free) counselling and serious cases that require an in-person evaluation?
Richa: We understand online has its limitations. We have escalation mechanism such that when it is a difficult case, it gets passed on to someone senior in the team.
We then try to see if such a case could be handled by using other mediums like voice or video call, if not we refer them to psychiatrist or psychologists in their own city.
Careerizma: In India, the general perception is: Free = Low Quality? How are you addressing this hurdle?
Richa: Mental Wellness is an area which is a subject of taboo in India. What is important is to reduce as many hurdles as possible. Be it in the form of disclosing personal information or paying money.
What we are attempting is to satisfy the unmet demand and therefore the perception of low quality is secondary at this point.
The profile of experts is transparent along with their rating and feedback. A user can chose to take a one to one session with the expert of his choice based on the available information.
Careerizma: In the online counselling model, is it tougher to judge the success/failure of the service your counsellors provide? How do you quantify whether the calls are having the intended effect on the caller?
Richa: Every session is followed by a feedback from both the user and expert side. It helps us put a check on both the quality of the session and the progress made from the user’s end.
Careerizma: While a majority of the feedback from users is overwhelmingly positive (5 star ratings), some seem to have an expectation mismatch. (Someone gave 3 stars because the counsellor wasn’t ‘humourous’ in the call!) How do you set expectations for the call?
Richa: There are strict guidelines given to the experts in terms of the one to one session. There are a few cases (very less) where there might be an expectation mismatch from the user’s end.
But that is bound to happen in any online system where an information, clear enough, might be misinterpreted by the user.
Careerizma: What lessons have you learnt so far about managing a bootstrapped (self-funded), online venture?
Richa: In very simple words, “It teaches you to be creative”. The avenues of marketing or doing business you explore when you are efficient with funds (or don’t have much) is much more creative than throwing money to grow. It teaches you how to be the best negotiators, be it for partnerships or recruiting people.
I would recommend every marketing person:
Stop throwing money at users. Be creative.
I agree it might be a bit slower than acquisition through money but it would teach you a lot. Do it till you can afford to i.e. pre-investment phase at least where you are shaping up the company at your own pace.
Careerizma: How can interested folks (counsellors, as well as those who’d like some counselling) connect with your team?
Richa: Here’s our contact information: