Last week as part of Mental Health Awareness week, we sat down with Jana Dowling, a London based tech entrepreneur who recently built mental health fitness app My Arkeo which is due to launch this summer.
1. Following years of work, you're just about to launch My Arkeo. What is it?
My Arkeo is a mental fitness app. My mission is to change the way people think about what it means to be fit to include tracking mental fitness in exactly the same way we do our physical fitness. For me, fitness isn't just about tracking calories and cardio - fitness is about your whole body: from food to mood, medications, therapies, exercise, they all contribute to your productivity and enjoyment in life. My Arkeo helps create structure around this and allows people to track and measure all these contributors so that they can easily see what's working for them - and what's not!
2. What made you want to start the business?
A few years ago I suffered a severe depressive episode where I spent five weeks under 24-hour watch as a high risk suicide patient. While I was trying to find work and get back on my feet, I found it hard to make sense of all the things the doctors and therapists and friends and family were telling me to do to help myself. So I built my own tracking system to identify things that were having a positive effect on me and what wasn't working. It all started on a piece of A4 paper, I drew out a grid and wrote down all of my behaviours, activities, symptoms, medications etc on one sheet across a month to help me identify patterns and really understand what was helping - not just immediately but also things that would help a few days later.
My tracking system worked for me and I got back into work super quickly so I decided to try and help other people who needed the same support I did. In 2017 I launched The 888 Collective, a social enterprise focused on helping people with mental health issues get back into work. I used this same tracking system with all the people I worked with there and received such positive feedback on how helpful it was - so much so that even people without mental health issues started to use it. I knew then that I was onto something that could really help and started speaking with people who could help me expand the tracker and build it into an app.
3. Have you always been entrepreneurial?
Yes, although honestly I didn't realise I was until quite late. I have never been particularly academic: I didn't to go to university and my first job was when I was 20, washing vases at 4am! I then worked in TV and fashion publishing before building out my own publication. I love being an entrepreneur but I have to say it is often very misunderstood. I don't believe when people say, 'if you do what you love you'll never work a day in your life', being an entrepreneur is hard work and 24/7. Controversially, I think working for someone else can be really underrated and should be celebrated more.
4. Being an entrepreneur is tough. As someone that has suffered with their mental health in the past, what is your advice for someone struggling with the day to day pressures of running your own business?
I certainly know what that feels like - before Covid, I managed to secure significant investment for My Arkeo through a VC and as such committed the funds to partners and services to help launch the business. Shortly after, due to the pandemic, the VC pulled the funds and left me with huge debts to settle on my own. At times it felt like the walls were caving in - I would worry about who I was letting down and I would worry about paying my rent and day to day living. What I found really worked for me was making sure I maintained perspective. When I felt things were getting on top of me I would take a step back and acknowledge that I incredibly privileged and have more opportunities than most. I have a huge amount to be grateful for. I have a safe room to sleep in, a duvet and a mattress. I'm lucky! For me, perspective is everything.
I also took time to look at what I was in control of, and reminded myself of the difference between stress and anxiety. Stress is a reaction to a direct threat in the present time. For example, delivering on a deadline, or threat from a lion. Anxiety is worrying about something that doesn't actually yet exist or has already happened, so it's not in the present moment and you don't have immediate control over it. I made sure I identified what which I was feeling and then I would consider what was within my control to change. Then I'd write a task list and get to work. Focusing on getting things done is key, every time you tick something off the task list the pressure lifts and before you know it life feels lighter.
5. Do you have a mantra or words that you try to live by?
I don't really have a mantra, but I love this quote from Václav Havel: "Vision is not enough, it must be combined with venture. It is not enough to stare up the steps, we must step up the stairs".
6. Life in a pandemic has been really tough the last year. What has helped you through your own difficult periods and what's your advice for someone finding it hard to pull through theirs?
It's important to remember that different things motivate different people. Take time to identify what motivates you and what makes you feel good and make sure you do these things for yourself. If you're feeling lonely or bad, try to identify why do you feel lonely, why do you feel bad? Once you have identified these factors you can take steps to move out of that space. I like to see it as taking away the emotions and looking at it pragmatically.
Some tips that I know work for me when I don't feel great. Going outside is important, the stimulus of fresh air, rain, sunshine whatever the weather can help change your mood and your body's chemistry. Walking and getting your heart rate up can really help shift how you feel and your mindset.
When I feel particularly shitty I reach out and do something for someone else! No matter how small - a gesture, making someone a cup of tea, hoovering the house so my partner doesn't have to do it or making small gift. When we become lonely it's easy to think you're not useful or that we're not worth anything. Doing something for someone else reminds you that you are! There's a huge amount you can do for other people, and doing it makes you feel great.