In conversation with Sushil Eapen on his Entrepreneurial journey with Silver Oak Health. Sushil has over 24 years of entrepreneurial and corporate experience in the US and in India. He currently is the Founder & CEO of Silver Oak Health – India’s first Online Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Program.
His thoughts reflect his vast experience in sales, marketing, finance and organizational development in consumer product, publishing and healthcare industries.
1. Tell about your journey prior to starting your company – Your education, work, passion, etc.
After my undergraduate education in India, I went to the US as a graduate student of Engineering. I went on to work for a few companies, and obtained an MBA in Marketing and Finance from the Kellogg school of Management, Northwestern University. Post MBA, I worked in the marketing department of a consumer product company in Chicago for a few years. After spending around 12 years in the US, I decided to be an entrepreneur and returned to India to start an assessment content development business for the publishing companies in the US.
After around 7 years of running this company, I was given the opportunity to start the psychological assessment publishing business of Pearson, a UK based publisher. During this time, I got to understand the landscape of mental health in India, the scale of the problem and the challenges faced by the professionals in this field. In 2015, I left Pearson to found the new start-up called Silver Oak Health. We recently launched India’s first online Cognitive Behavioural Therapy business called Stress Control Online, an innovative therapist aided solution to help people that are undergoing stress and its reactions – anxiety and depression.
2. What drove you to become an entrepreneur in the first place? How did it all start?
I had always been a bit of a maverick and I am driven by new ideas and the possibilities for creating solutions that do not exist in the market that we serve, and particularly in business that has a direct link to helping other people. Early 2015, I left the job as the country manager of a large Multinational company to go back to the basics of starting a business from scratch with the conviction that if we can create value, and deliver consistent quality at affordable prices, there is a fair chance for the business to succeed and scale. A drive to Auroville in Pondicherry and back around this time to meet some creative souls more than helped me to crystalize the idea of starting an innovative company and assembling a team of creative professionals, with a shared vision of creating value, a mission of helping other people, and enjoying the journey along the way.
3. What was the initial idea and how did it evolve?
After working in the domain of publishing psychological assessments for a few years in India, I understood the growing need for addressing various mental health challenges in the society, particularly the area of stress, anxiety and depression. Having interacted with a large number of clinical psychologists in the country, I concluded that the traditional model of face-to-face counselling has not solved the challenges of most people. As it is the case for most of us, we do not realize when we are going through stress, and when we find it difficult to cope, it starts impacting our health and in many cases leads to symptoms typical of anxiety and depression.
I named the new company Silver Oak Health, inspired by the majestic Silver Oak trees found in the hills of Kodagu and Nilgiris as shade trees in coffee and tea plantations. The therapeutic nature of the trees was closely related to the business of therapy for depression, and as soon as I found out that the domain name of available, I named the company Silver Oak Health. Soon after, I rented an office that overlooks trees of our garden city.
After taking advice from a thought leader in this field, I decided to focus on building a business around Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), and creating an online business with services wrapped around it. I started discussions with a UK based Clinical Psychologist, whose CBT program is one of the most popular and successful in the NHS, UK. This led to an agreement, and the mission of creating India’s first online CBT in Bangalore.
1. How did you go about building your initial team?
I was keen to build the company with a team in order to share the joys of success as well as to help shoulder the burden that comes with running any business. I knew someone in a similar stage of his career, who was also looking to leave a large organization to start something exciting and meaningful. I met him one evening, and shared my vision for the company and the business model. At the end of the conversation, he was sold on the idea and came on board as a co-founder.
Together we set the goal of building a high potential team of engineers, marketers and psychologists that will buy into our vision of creating a world-class company. We wanted highly intelligent, creative, innovative thinking professionals in India who are driven by the excitement of starting a new and innovative business that would change how mental health services are delivered in India and later around the world.
2. Talk about the chemistry between the co-founders OR the Founding team.
My co-founder and I have very different skill sets, but share some vital common values. He has significant years of experience in people management, and setting up offices in India for international company. We both lived abroad for several years and were keen to establish an office culture that would match the best around the world. The idea of helping a potentially large number of people, and wanting to enjoy the journey through the ups and downs of building a new business is a strong common link between us. Attracting the best of talent to work for us, creating a great work environment, and delivering exceptional customer value continue to be the big driver for showing up to work every day. We both are highly experienced professionals and so we have clearly divided the areas of the businesses that we manage in order to ensure that we don’t put our fingers in the same pie and slow down decisions. We do discuss the key decisions affecting our product offering, our customer experience and our employees.
3. Can you tell me about your current Team hierarchy.
Between the two co-founders, I am responsible for sales, marketing and finance and my co-founder is responsible for operations including product development and the psychological services delivery team. Our first hire was the head of technology, a young entrepreneurial and brilliant software engineer who liked the idea of joining us and the opportunity to architect a world class product that would be used by people not only in India but all over the world. We then went about meeting and hiring smart and motivated engineers, some straight from colleges to work in some of the latest technologies.
The next key hire was the head of marketing. It was a chance meeting, and over a cup of coffee and I offered him the job and the enormous challenge of educating and converting the large number of people that are undergoing depression and related challenges to customers of our solution. As a young, dynamic and creative professional, a former social entrepreneur, he was keen to join a new and innovative business. Under his leadership we hired a few highly creative and brilliant marketers who are now reaching out to people in a variety of digital and offline strategies. We also have some highly motivated psychologists who function as the coaches for people who sign up for our Stress Control Online program.
1. How did you get your first funding?
The founders brought in seed money that was sufficient to develop the initial product and to help market it to early users in the country. We also drew up a plan to raise funds to scale the business, market it to general consumers in as well as corporate customers in India. We also planned to create content for other countries so that our solution can be used by people around the world, for which additional funds were needed.
NRK Raman, the former MD of Iflex, India’s earliest and highly successful product company in the core banking solutions business was our common friend and a fellow golfer during my weekend leisure activity at the fairways. My cofounder is also a keen golfer. Since he knows both of us well, and he liked the business idea, Raman agreed to be the lead investor in our business. Around the same time, we were introduced to an Indian American doctor who met us in Bangalore, liked the team as well as the business model, also agreed to become an investor. We continue to meet potential investors who can add value and help us grow the business in India and internationally.
2. What did you do on getting your first funding money?
We started building our first product with the seed money, and used the funds to build the initial development team. We knew that the seed funds were sufficient to last us through the initial phase of the business. Once the product was within sight of release, we hired the marketing team and started pre-marketing activities. The funds have been carefully utilized and wisely deployed to attract early users both general consumers and corporate customers.
3. Tell me about the interactions that you had with your investors.
We have met several investors in the last one year since we started seeking funds for the business. Several institutional investors approached us, and wanted to understand the nature of the business and its scalability. All agreed that there is scale, and need for this solution is likely to grow. Some of the investors wanted to see our ability to execute our marketing plans including reaching out to large number of people, educate them about stress in their lives, and convert them as customers of our solution Stress Control Online. We were very happy to have found two great early stage investors, and hope to find similar early angel investors who like the idea of creating a business around cognitive science and its application to help people that are facing behavioural health challenges. Our road map is exciting, and we can offer solutions around cognition – remediation where there is deficit, and improvements where learning can create improvements.
1. What were some of the most intense moments in your startup journey?
So far, there has not been any intense moments since the company was founded. Since the founders are highly experienced people in business, and the fact that this is my second entrepreneurial venture, we think through our decisions, and try to execute the plan efficiently and quickly. We can now see clearly the strength in each of the founding team. My co-founder is very strong in relationships and it shows in the way the employees are managed in the office. Every once in a while we do ask ourselves if we are enjoying the journey as we had planned at the beginning – so far we are having a time of our life.
2. Whom did you get mentoring from? How did it help?
When we have a major decision to make and need a sounding board, we call NRK Raman who is also our strategic advisor in the business. Raman is highly experienced, and went through the experience of founding a product company a few decades ago, grew it into a large company which was then acquired by Oracle, and got listed in the Bombay Stock Exchange. His experience and calm thinking helps us when we have a dilemma related to investments, key recruitments and partnership formation.
3. How does your typical day look like (with respect to running your company)?
We went through the various phases of a start-up from the two co-founders sitting in an office, hiring the first employee, planning the product development, hiring and mentoring the marketing and services team. At this time, the office is a bustle of activities – sales team calling up prospects all day, marketing team in ideation meetings to plan campaigns, both of us founders calling up corporate customers and explaining value of Stress Control Online as an employee wellness solution, recruitment activities to make sure that the psychological services team has enough capacity to handle the new clients coming into the program.
Some days, when the leads exceed what our phone sales team can handle or when there is an unexpected leave of absence, we both founders are on the phone calling up the consumer leads and explaining how our solution will help them build coping skills to deal with stress. We also believe in giving employees good work-home balance. We all come to the office early, and leave early to beat the traffic. We don’t want to burn out the employees and have a revolving door of people coming in and out, but believe that this is a marathon and all of us have to pace well in order not to burn out our valuable team members. The employee feedback gives us tremendous satisfaction to know that we have given our employees a great work environment to thrive and be successful. This was part of our mission when we started the company, and we are able to walk our talk.
4. What are your hobbies outside work, and your favorite get-away spots?
I am an amateur woodworker and have a wood shop behind my house called ‘Dad’s Workshop’. I have been an amateur woodworker for a long time, and enjoy working with wood as a medium and with hand tools. My workshop is tucked away behind the house, and I spend most evenings and weekends creating furniture and accessories with recycled wood. Once in a while, I offer weekend classes for young professionals in Bangalore who are interested to experiment with wood as a medium to express creativity and for experiencing the joy of using hands and hand tools to create new things from recycled wood. In 2011, I published a blog and once in a while people read this blog and reach out to me to learn woodworking. There is also a short video on Vimeo called the Zen of Carpentry, where I talk about enjoying the journey and how the slow process of using hand tools for woodworking have many lessons for life, particularly as way to give yourself a bit of a ‘me time’ for thoughts and reflection.
I am also a keen golfer, and enjoy weekend golfing in Bangalore with friends.
1. Your advice for aspiring entrepreneurs who want to startup?
The best investment we can make is on ourselves. If you are confident about your abilities, pick an area that you understand and identify a gap where the needs are underserved and come up with a plan to deliver products or services better, faster and more affordable to customers. I recommend that you take these ideas in your head, take some risks, and plunge into entrepreneurship. Don’t be afraid of failure. You will learn a lot. If you succeed, you will look back and say that it was the best decision at that time. If you fail, you will be better prepared to start something else or even if you go back to a job, you will be far more valuable and well-rounded to create better value for your employer.
Latest posts by Seshu Karthick (see all)
- Dr. Anbumani Ramadoss – MP, Former Health Minister, PMK - March 13, 2017
- Vinod of Cloudcherry - January 6, 2017
- Sushil Eapen from Silver Oak Health - October 11, 2016