Elettra Bianchi Dennerlein of ‘My Online Therapy’: “Don’t put your business needs before the problems in your personal life”

Don’t put your business needs before the problems in your personal life. Get those sorted with as much urgency as you would with work. As usual, this is easier said than done. However, three years into building my startup I can tell you that accumulating unresolved personal issues will ultimately take a massive toll on […]

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Don’t put your business needs before the problems in your personal life. Get those sorted with as much urgency as you would with work. As usual, this is easier said than done. However, three years into building my startup I can tell you that accumulating unresolved personal issues will ultimately take a massive toll on you, and you may need to take time off to sort them.

As part of my series about young people who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Elettra Bianchi Dennerlein.

Elettra Bianchi Dennerlein is the Co-Founder and Co-CEO of My Online Therapy, the UK’s leading virtual psychology clinic.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?

I was born and raised in Rome to a very entrepreneurial family. Both my mother and my father ran their own businesses — my mum had a gym and my father was one of the first people to invent sports TV rights in Italy — but they came from quite different backgrounds. My mum came from a relatively wealthy noble family in Naples whilst my father (as the son of a railway worker and tailoress) has very humble origins and is a self-made man. This sparked my passion for business at a young age.

Growing up, swimming and travelling were big parts of my life. My parents gave me and my sister the gift of seeing a lot of the world, even before we were old enough to travel alone. Growing up bilingual my mum wanted us to go to an international school, even though my father was initially resistant. He wanted us to dream in one language, to which my mum replied that we were then going to learn to dream in English. They always pushed me and my sister to get as much experience out of our own country as possible before heading abroad. International school was always the first step towards leaving Italy for university, which both of us did.

Is there a particular book or organization that made a significant impact on you growing up? Can you explain why it resonated with you so much?

Attending an international school in Rome definitely had a big impact on me growing up. Being surrounded and exposed to people from all over the world at such an early age shortened distances. It changed how I perceived the world and it helped me develop a global outlook on the world.

How do you define “Making A Difference”?

Being active in shaping the world that you want to live in and leave behind you.

You are currently leading an organization that aims to make a social impact. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today

In the wake of Covid, mental health support is more vital than ever before. But for many people, there are barriers that prevent them from reaching out for help, such as cost, access and stigma. I believe My Online Therapy is helping to tear down these barriers one by one. We’re on a mission to make therapy accessible to all and to help people live happier, healthier lives.

My Online Therapy provides on-the-spot access to leading psychologists via video or live chat, and our offering is specifically tailored to each individual and their needs. After completing a free online assessment, the platform matches the user to the most appropriate therapeutic approach and the best psychologist for their situation. On top of therapy sessions, we’ve also created Self-care, a library of evidence-based therapy exercises that clients can listen to at the push of a button.

By removing geographical restrictions, we’re allowing people to access highly-qualified psychologists, at a time that is convenient for them. This allows people to engage in therapy from the comfort of their own home. It allows them to fit therapy sessions around work, home and family life — with the added bonus of costing less than seeing an in-person therapist.

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

My family has always been very open about mental health care. It was never something that was demonised or seen as a problem.

Back when seeing a therapist was highly stigmatised, my grandmother encouraged my mum to see a therapist when she was having a particularly hard time in high school. Since then, my mother has always been a big advocate of therapy.

When I grew up, I rejected the idea of therapy (as teenagers often do), because I wanted to show that I could do without. But when I hit a difficult time in my life and experienced my first therapy session, I quickly realised that I was losing out on something that could help me navigate through life.

My father was also initially very reluctant about “seeing a shrink”. He struggled on little sleep, working 24-hour days at points in his life, until he almost risked death with a stroke. Since then, he has become a great proponent of therapy.

The combination of these lived experiences, as well as my personal mental health journey, made me extremely passionate about mental healthcare.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest them. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?

I don’t have an “I was watching the sunset over the Himalayas and the idea came to me” type of “Aha Moment”. Instead, the idea of an online therapy platform came to me over time.

When I moved to the UK from Italy for university in 2012, I continued my therapy sessions over Skype — and this planted the seed of the idea.

Over the years, I noticed a trend: more and more people were seeing their therapist online, especially those who travelled a lot for work.

It wasn’t until 2017 when I ran some preliminary research in the sector, that I realised that digital healthcare was already quite consolidated in the US but it was just beginning to pick up in Europe. So, I decided I was going to give it a shot.

At the time I was working at Tesla, which was more than a full-time job, so it started as a side hustle. But being able to raise my first pre-seed round off the back of a napkin business plan was the real trigger for it all.

Many young people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?

When I decided that it was time to give my idea a shot, I knew I had to translate the grand ideas into practical steps, right down to the nitty gritty of choosing a name for the company. I set up a limited company so that I could operate as a legal entity. Then I asked myself the very simple question: who can help me do this task?

I started tapping back into communities I had worked in before and had introductions with people who could help. One of the first tasks was to start designing the website and app. Therefore, I tapped back into the startup community I had worked in some years before.

Networking was crucial. I quickly learned that, only through networking, could I manage to navigate the steps to successfully set up a company.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

After my pre-seed money raise of £300,000 in January 2018, I ended up landing a contract with a developer in Washington who was going to help me develop the first minimum viable product (MVP) of the app.

I had a bit of money and a team but I had no idea where to start when it came to psychologists. So I started doing some cold-calling outreach and asked for roundtables to debate what the platform might look like.

I secured a meeting with one of the largest private mental healthcare clinics in London and, a week after our first meeting in London, I flew them to New York to meet my developers.

We had no contract or anything, and even more so, I had very little to actually show them in New York if not a super basic prototype. But I went with my gut feeling and with my investors’ suggestions and, more than three years later, we are still holding strong together.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?

When I was brainstorming what to name my company, I took my name Elettra and turned it into Lekta. I decided this would be a great fit. But, if you name an app for psychological care after yourself, what does this say about you?

I often say that I’m always my first patient and it’s no wonder that I ventured into this specific sector. However, it was quite grandiose of me to want to name this sort of company after myself.

It took the look of a few psychologists to realize that I was clearly out of line. But it was quite hilarious, and looking back I can only but laugh about it.

I definitely realized that the minute you step into the world of venture for impact, it’s about the cause that you are wanting to solve. It’s no longer about you.

None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?

I’ve become incredibly aware of something fundamental in life: clichés are clichés for a reason. They always tell important truths about lived experiences. One of these that I learned very early on in my entrepreneurial career is that ideas are great, but execution is what matters. And execution is close to impossible without a solid team.

When I partnered with one of the largest private mental healthcare clinics in London, I did not only secure some of the most prominent professionals in the sector, I also found a team. I found mentors and I also found a family.

Without Dr Elena Touroni, Vas Touronis and Dr Tom Pennybacker (the three other co-founders of My Online Therapy), there would be no My Online Therapy. But, most importantly, I have learned a great deal thanks to them — specifically about the mental healthcare sector but also more generally about how to operate and grow a business.

The three of them together bring over fifty years of combined experience. To this day, I am often incredulous that I have a say when there is still so much I have to learn.

But since the first meeting, we have found a natural synergy that has had great influence in shaping the way I grew as a leader and as a person.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

Mental health is finally getting the attention it deserves and I feel honoured that I get to be part of this change. As with all things, it’s exactly when the wave is picking up that you have to start riding it to have the greatest impact.

We need all parts of society to contribute to ensure that the mental health agenda stays centre stage. Starting from the individual, we must strive to maintain the de-stigmatization of mental illness. The more we as individuals are open about our struggles with mental health, the more this will continue to have a snowball effect on those closest to us.

We also have to become more aware of the early signs of mental illness, making sure to approach them with the care that is required, just as you would for any other type of physical concern. In doing so, we’ll also hopefully adopt the correct language so that ‘mental health’ can become part of the very texture and fabric of our being.

Society must also try to embed mental health in all its functions. From home and the workplace, to healthcare and education, mental health support needs to be at the bedrock of how we operate in all these areas. Otherwise, we’re never going to achieve healthy systems.

The dysfunctional way in which society has treated mental healthcare is a result of the demonisation of people with mental health problems. To address one of the roots of the problem, society can place importance on mental health as early as childhood. The conversations, the interventions and prevention must start early so that we can defeat an outdated way of distinguishing mental healthcare from physical healthcare.

We also need further government subsidies to make mental health care more accessible.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? (Please share an example for each).

– Don’t put your business needs before the problems in your personal life. Get those sorted with as much urgency as you would with work. As usual, this is easier said than done. However, three years into building my startup I can tell you that accumulating unresolved personal issues will ultimately take a massive toll on you, and you may need to take time off to sort them.

– When you’re just starting out developing a product, don’t pay long contracts upfront for the sake of a discount. I tied myself in too early, signing long contracts with fantastic developers in the US. However, they were not right for my product. Stick to paying as things get delivered as much as you can.

– Put your business to work and generate users early on. Don’t focus just on building products.

– Take more photos and keep a journal of when you first start your business. I often wish that I could have more photos or video memories of when my team and I started.

– Business is business. This is still a learning curve for me, even though the last six months of negotiations with a private equity fund have imparted a great lesson with regards to this saying. But there’s no ‘trying to be nice’ when it comes to business decisions. People will not approach you in this way, so you should not either.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

I would ask: “If you had a magic wand that changed the way your grandparents and parents’ generation treated the world, would you use it?” I assume the answer to this question is always yes. Therefore, I would urge everyone to try and be that magic wand.

Is there a person in the world you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?

Elon Musk every day of the week! I don’t particularly want to go to Mars, but I think Elon has gone such a long way in redefining norms of society through invention. I would love to sit down and listen to his thought processes.

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