Meet Angela, doctor turned entrepreneur!
Angela is the co-founder of Clearhead, an online mental health health platform designed to empower users to find the help they need using both tech solutions, free resources and a range of mental health professionals.
Angela shares her remarkable journey, providing with some honest and invaluable insights for other doctors considering their own startup.
I pretty much knew by the third year of medical school that I did not want to do clinical medicine forever. I did like it, which made it hard. But I thought that I was better equipped for doing things that were more strategic; I loved bigger picture systems thinking.
Once I realised this is what actually excited me and that at medical school I was struggling to find opportunities to develop that skill-set, I ended up volunteering a lot in the community. Luckily New Zealand is small enough that people start to recognise you if you're someone who's willing to put your hand up for things. I sat on my first board when I was 21 and I have been on 15 Boards now. For example, the Ministry of Health had a health IT governance group that they were establishing so they reached out to me.
I was not really doing this to build up a public profile, per se, I was just looking for opportunities that allowed me to bring issues I was seeing within the community to decision makers and organisations that had the ability to do something about it. But I wouldn’t do just anything – it had to be on things I was passionate about. Particularly young people and leadership. Having said that, I didn’t connect with every single thing that I tried and I didn’t find the thing that was going to pull me away from medicine completely until I started Clearhead.
I made myself a promise that by the end of the year I would have moved into the area I was truly passionate about
So, I completed medical school at Auckland University and graduated in 2015. I was most interested in Paediatrics and joined the training programme as a house officer. And I did love it, my bosses were kind and trusting; I had autonomy. My last rotation, paediatric oncology, was actually my favourite.
However, at the start of 2018, I was reflecting about how at 28 I was just coasting in life, - I was enjoying my job, had good friends, my own home. But I still did not feel completely fulfilled. So I made myself a promise that by the end of the year I would make the leap into something I was most passionate about, innovative health technology.
Throughout that year I was passively searching online for opportunities but many wanted prior experience that I couldn’t offer. Then I went to an Artificial Intelligence conference in Switzerland. I was sitting next to this man, chatting about problems in healthcare and my ideas for potential solutions and, when I finished, he said ‘you sound like you know what you’re talking about. I would be interested in investing – send me a business plan. If I like it, I will fund it’. I thought, well, I have nothing to lose.
You need to be clear about what you want. Then go and tell people what you are passionate about.
So, I flew home and called a good friend of mine, Michael. We had dabbled a bit in tech on the side while working full-time; it never went anywhere but I knew he had the expertise and was also passionate about social causes. We met in a fish and chip shop for lunch and a week later, I sent off the business plan. The man from the conference funded us, enough to set us up for 3-4 years, and that was how Clearhead was born.
In some ways it was completely random, but it was also the crystallisation of a ten-year journey of building experience, networking and insights to be able to present tangible solutions. While this experience is obviously quite unique and unusual, it taught me you need to be clear about what you want. Then go and tell people what you are passionate about.
When Michael and I started, we wanted to build something that was about democratising healthcare for everyone. Our goal was to reduce the inequity within mental health care. It is an issue I had become increasingly frustrated about while working as a doctor.
It took us almost two years to get to a point where we felt like we had something people would want and be willing to pay for. It wasn’t that anyone disagreed with our mission or vision, but we were trying to create something completely new and the health sector was unwilling to invest in something so unfamiliar.
My ‘average’ day
On average, I work 12 hours a day, every day, including the weekends. I do make time to hang out with friends, it just means my day is really long. I will work from around 6am to 6pm and then switch off with friends at least two to three times a week, just go out for dinner. I make sure that I take care of myself as well, even if I am working long hours.
I make sure that I take care of myself, even if I am working long hours.
I have around four meetings a day, manage HR, reply to emails – all the things needed to make sure the company survives! The parts I love most are working with stakeholders and discussing how to solve problems with my team.
Doing hours like this sounds terrible if it's something that you're not passionate about. But if you're passionate about it, you actually don't really see it as work because you actually really love what you're doing.
My experience of ‘going beyond’
Reactions from others when you decided to pursue a non-clinical path
I have to be honest, I never felt like I completely fit in. I liked my job and got along with people, but they were not my confidantes; a lot of my good friends were outside of medicine. I think people are curious that I have followed this path, but I didn’t have anyone directly criticising or helping me at work. It can be hard to find your cohort, your tribe, that you need to keep you going. That is why the team you build is so important as an entrepreneur. I was really lucky to have Michael, my co-founder, and then the team we put together. I’m really, really grateful for them and our culture, where people feel like they feel they’re part of a family. That to me is a success; that I can build a work environment where people enjoy being at work.
That to me is a success; that I can build a work environment where people enjoy being at work.
Is there anything you wish you had known before taking on the role?
I think sometimes ignorance is bliss! If I had known how hard it was, I don't know if I would have done it. Entrepreneurship is so glamourised today, many of my friends say they want to become their own boss – I tell them it’s freaking hard!! The first two years felt like being constantly punched in the face, and you have to get back up and want to keep going. If I didn't have the team that I have, I definitely would have given up.
Words of wisdom for others considering starting their own business
As doctors, we often feel like we should only ever show our best foot. That there's no room for trying different things. Whereas in the non-clinical world that is allowed and expected. You need to be honest with yourself when a particular idea or business model you have is not working.
Building rapport and digging deep to really understand a problem is such an important skill and one we learn through clinical training. Time and project management skills are also really valuable. For a tech startup, if you don’t know how to code, you obviously need someone that does!
You need to be honest with yourself
Finally, you need to be self-aware. If you are successful in becoming a doctor, in general, you have been successful in life. You know, you've applied for medical school, you were successful in getting in when it is so competitive. Entrepreneurship, it's not as meritocratic as that. If you are someone like myself, who requires some level of validation that I'm on the right track, it is hard! For two years, I had no validation. If you want to start your own business, you have to be really honest with yourself. If you have no validation for possibly a few years, would you keep going?
You also need to be prepared to deal with rejection!
If you could go back to your medical school graduation day and give yourself one piece of advice, what would it be?
Be patient; things take time and you will get there.